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The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  1,024 ratings  ·  163 reviews
This is a story about rivalry among artists. Not the kind of rivalry that grows out of hatred and dislike, but rather, rivalry that emerges from admiration, friendship, love. The kind of rivalry that existed between Degas and Manet, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon.

These were some of the most famous and creative relationships in the history
Hardcover, 420 pages
Published October 13th 2016 by Profile Books (first published August 16th 2016)
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 ·  1,024 ratings  ·  163 reviews

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Dec 18, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
If he looks a bit bored here . . .

. . . you have to understand that Édouard Manet had no ear for music, no matter how lovely his wife Suzanne played. And he had been sitting most of a winter for Degas to get this family setting on canvas. Ah, but Degas was showing more than boredom. You know what they say about unhappy families.

The right side of the painting looks as though Madame Manet is hidden by a wall. But that's no wall. Degas painted Suzanne in full profile, and the piano, too. But when h
Roger Brunyate
Painters Without Pictures

So much of the pleasure in an art book comes from the combination of text, binding, and the art itself that it is difficult to review a cheaply-produced advance proof (via Amazon Vine) of the words alone. However, the publishers promise a "beautiful package with two 8-page color photo inserts of art." Author Samuel Smee refers to the illustrations by number, and it is possible to look most of them up online, but there are a few cases where it is difficult to be sure exac
Margaret Sankey
May 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is art history as examined through the relationships of four pairs of contemporaries--Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon. With deft descriptions of the works and the techniques, and a little bogged down in the soap opera-ish relationship tangles, Smee explores how love, hate, envy, friendship and just close proximity challenged these artists to expand their work, grow as artists (if not always as human beings) and think in tandem with another p ...more
Biblio Files (takingadayoff)
If you ever imagined that great artists languish in their garrets all day in solitude, please read The Art of Rivalry. It's hard to see how these eight artists had time to paint at all with all the carousing, drinking, affairs, drugs, and fighting.

Art critic Sebastian Smee sets out to show how competitive friendships among artists result in pushing artists to be even more creative. This makes sense, and he points to four sets of friendships/rivalries in which one or both artists were pushed by
Text Publishing
‘Vivid and exuberant writing about art…[brings] great works to life with love and appreciation.’
Pulitzer citation

‘Smee takes readers deep into the beginnings of modern art in a way that not only enlightens, but also builds a stronger appreciation of the influences that created the environment that fostered its development.’

‘This is magnificent book on the relationships at the roots of artistic genius. Smee offers a gripping tale of the fine line between friendship and competition, tracing
Dec 30, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Great topic, disappointing handling. This book can't seem to decide whether it's biography, psychology, or art history, and in the end is a rather bland mix of the three that doesn't add up to solid substance. You get some general biographical sketches, first of one person, then the other. Sometimes they interact, but there is little to demonstrate the in-depth dynamics of the rivalry. I do believe the rivalries existed, but I wanted a little more meat on the bone.

There's a lot of surmising: "He
Noah Goats
Oct 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In The Art of Rivalry, Sebastian Smee discusses the relationships between four pairs of artists. The book provides an interesting look at how artists influence one another, sometimes supporting, and other times undermining, each other as they struggle to create art. It was interesting.
Sep 19, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I was going to summarize my stance on this book by simply stating that I thought it was butt. However, I’ve decided you might need further explanation and support for such a negative review. So here goes…
My first issue with this book was discovered right at the onset: the language used. I understand that art and art criticism seemingly requires the application of grandiloquence, but this was ridiculous. By the end of the first chapter I tired of 55 word sentences filled with sesquipedalian word
Shawn Thrasher
Art history is certainly not one of my areas of expertise. I know just enough about art and artists to be able to answer trivial pursuit questions with answers other than "Picasso." So reading this book from the vantage point of learning something new was a great experience. Smee is a good writer; his book was neither terribly academic and dry, nor a vapid pop biography. If Smee's book was a meal, then it was rather well-cooked meat and potatoes, rather than a tv dinner or fancy French. But if h ...more
Moshe Mikanovsky
I like the subject matter and the stories of these 4 couples of artists friends and rivals were interesting. Their lives were filled with uncertainty, self-doubt, sexual tensions, betrayals, failure, and breakthroughs. Yet, at times their stories also felt petty and filled with self-absorption, self-importance and pompous. Maybe a fiction based on their real-life stories would have brought it closer.
Jan 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Ingres told him: "Draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory, and you will become a good artist."" (p. 106)
Apr 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are stories that have stayed with me since reading this a couple of years ago (when I took a hiatus from goodreads). One such story: "In 1945, Pollock's old and frequently tense friendship with Philip Gueston, who had been a fellow student back at Manual Arts in California, had come to a head at a party thrown by Sande. Pollock had already embraced abstraction at this point and was entering his most fruitful phase. He turned on Guston, who was panting allegorical works in a figurative styl ...more
I’m reading a great book by the Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee, who won a Pulitzer for criticism in 2011. It looks at the intricate relationships between four pairs of painters—Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollock and de Kooning, and Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Close friends, former friends, frenemies—the bonds between these artists shift over time, and Smee opens new windows on their art and lives with his approach. —Phil (
Jolly Jess
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked learning about the lives of these artists in relation to each other. It helped me to make better sense of their art and to remember them more clearly. In some instances it made their art more interesting. Conflict is compelling and there’s plenty of it in the art world.
Susan Liston
Nov 13, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, read-2017
Not as interesting as I had hoped. This is mainly just biographical sketches of the eight artists. He does of course, emphasize the times each pair's lives intersected with each other, but that didn't seem to be the main focus, as it sounds like it would be. I did learn a bit about those artists I had never read a lot about before, like Freud, Bacon and de Kooning. (this is no doubt because I'm not a huge fan of those three painters) But artists are usually weird people and it's always interesti ...more
Feb 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio-books
I wanted to read this book for a class I'm taking on Modern Art History to get the story of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but the stories of all four of these "rivalries" were so well told and interesting. Each section tells of the friendships of 4 pairs of artists, and includes their backgrounds, how they knew each other, and the end of their relationships (spoiler) it usually doesn't end well! The stories also focus on specific works of art, and I wish that there were more images of t ...more
Fluidly written and informative. As with all such projects (Katie Roiphe's "Uncommon Arrangements" for instance) it is not obvious why the author has zoomed in on this particular set of relationships as opposed to dozens of others, but who cares. Smee delivers a lively and balanced account of 4 fraught but fruitful relationships between pairs of famous artists who have all generated multiple biographies. While this book may be redundant for art historians, I learnt a lot from it since some of th ...more
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is nonfiction, but is written like a telenovela complete with love triangles, fist fights, avant-garde parties, and gossip. I learned a lot from this book without feeling like I was reading an academic text. I would have liked more direct citations indicating where certain stories came from, but if you aren't all that worried about historical accuracy then that won't bother you. Fun read if you want to learn more about some of the giants of modern art.
David Sogge
Jul 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For readers like me, largely unschooled in art history, this book is an informative and highly readable introduction to some major painters, their friends, lovers and patrons. The writer has done his homework, drawing mainly on secondary sources (noted, including his own writings on Lucian Freud, in an addendum) and his own professional knowledge as an art critic. The reader isn’t spared unpleasant facts about these painters' infidelities, addictions, abuse of women and in cases like Pollock's, ...more
First of all I should say that Sebastian is a dear friend. Being from Somerville, I'm familiar with his work in the Globe, and not only that, he has written a rather in depth article about me, and my time as Amy Arbus' muse in the late 70's. I suppose on some level that would make me biased. I loved this book. I have an extensive collection of art books, which I have spent years poring over, and copying paintings that I love. I was familiar with most of the paintings mentioned. I also have been ...more
Alyssa Nelson
*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

One of my favorite things to learn about is how art is made — I mean art in a broad sense, in terms of writing, painting, filmmaking, etc. I find it incredibly satisfying to learn about the lives of those who’ve created amazing pieces of work, and learn how their circumstances influenced those works. So, when I saw that this was available on NetGalley, of course I
Feb 11, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2019
Interesting look at the artists behind the art and their friendships. My favorite of the four was Pollack and de Kooning whose twisted tale could inspire Hitchcock. Reading as i a review of the dynamics of friendship between artists; it offers some useful lessons. The least of which could be found in every friendship: the longing to be close against the need to stand apart.
Nov 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is most useful for providing background and milieu for developments in modern European and American art. Smee sets up four matches of contemporary artists:: Freud and Bacon, Manet and Degas, Matisse and Picasso, and Pollock and de Kooning. At times the pairings seemed a little forced (not to much out of chronological order). Particularly with Matisse and Picasso, the interactions were often speculative. I cringed at every phrase like "he undoubtedly felt....". Nevertheless there is ple ...more
Oct 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I never wanted to put it down. Greatest impact for me was the sadness and tragedy in all of these lives with the exception of Freud. It was fascinating to watch how human these 8 artists acted in terms of competitiveness and at the same time really admiring each other.

There was one thing i thought the author went easy on and that was Picasso's obvious pedophile issue. The way he leered after Matisses' little girl and then adopted a 13 year old girl and painted her nude to the point of his wife
Aug 15, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Honesty time. I skimmed most of this book. It's well written and interesting, just a little denser than I expected when I requested the arc. This book is packed with a ton of information about the artists and their lives. It reads more like a history book about the temperament and personalities of these 8 artists rather than a narrative exploring rivalry through the lens of famous artistic friends. That's not a bad thing. It's just not what I expected. That being said, I would buy this for the a ...more
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully written and insightful. I completely enjoyed this book
Aug 26, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Too much pseudobiography and not enough about rivalry.
Gaylord Dold
Jun 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee (Random House, New York, 2017)

At the center of Sebastian Smee’s new book “The Art of Rivalry” is the idea of artistic struggle through rivalry. Smee won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2011 and is now the Boston Globe’s art critic. His work is widely recognized for its insight and cogency, and that goes double for his new book, which yields to the attentive reader a wealth of understanding abou
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: serious art students
This book is packed with a good deal of information, and the writing is, from a technical point, top notch. It's biggest problem is that it's not sure if it's a biography, a text book (That's how it read to me.), a survey of the sexual mores and psychological disturbances of modern artists, or a study of friendships that thrive and then crumble among those same artists. What, for the most part, it isn't, is an in depth look at the rivalry between two artists of the same genre who rise to fame at ...more
Mar 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful book! It was hard to put it down several times to continue to see what the next page offered. Great insight into these interesting relationships of the Impressionist, Modern and post modern artist. Fascinating that the rivals the author spoke of often had similar backgrounds i.e. Freud and Bacon from very wealthy families, Picasso and Matisse very poor families).
After completing the book I realized how much these artists needed someone to either compare themselves too or in some ways
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Boston Athenaeum ...: The Art of Rivalry 1 3 Nov 29, 2016 10:34AM  

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“IF THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL difference between rivalry in the modern era and rivalry in earlier epochs, as I believe there is, it is that in the modern era artists developed a wholly different conception of greatness. It was a notion based not on the old, established conventions of mastering and extending a pictorial tradition, but on the urge to be radically, disruptively original. Where did this urge come from? It was a response, most basically, to the new conditions of life—to a sense that modern, industrialized, urban society, although in some ways representing a pinnacle of Western civilization, had also foreclosed on certain human possibilities. Modernity, many began to feel, had shut off the possibility of forging a deeper connection with nature and with the riches of spiritual and imaginative life. The world, as Max Weber wrote, had become disenchanted. Hence” 1 likes
“In these now canonical pieces, Greenberg, following Trotsky, had insisted on the need for avant-garde art to retain its independence not only from bourgeois values, but also from explicitly leftist habits of thought: Only by retaining total independence, believed Greenberg, could art offer effective resistance to forces of standardization and control in society at large. To maintain this autonomy, he argued, progressive art had to burn away everything that was incidental to the medium itself. That meant ridding painting of its traditional preoccupation with creating illusions of three-dimensionality and depth. And it meant the end of all other gambits that were in less-than-total accord with the innate properties of the medium. The artwork, he believed, must be made to surrender to “the resistance of the medium.” To” 0 likes
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